RIVERTON — Braving temperatures in the single digits, with a Confederate flag flying in a yard across the street, about 200 community members filed off buses or out of cars and lined up on the street Monday, waiting to start a march to City Hall.
Soon they, mostly students, would walk the short distance to the building, where speakers would emphasize Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to civil rights, and how important those ideals are to uphold in Riverton.
The students and community members were outside of Riverton’s City Park preparing to take part in the 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Equality Walk in Riverton — an event originally started by Indigenous Fremont County students in response to news of a racist organization’s intention to locate its headquarters in the city.
This year, though, recent events in this city had organizers re-emphasizing the need for unity.
Last week’s march followed two recent events that have prompted discussions about divides between the city’s Native and non-Native residents: the fatal police shooting of a Northern Arapaho man and the sight of two Riverton High School students walking into school wearing clothing associated with the Ku Klux Klan. Those talks so far have culminated in Monday’s walk and a talking circle for community members two days prior, where attendees discussed healing, the police shooting and the historical context of the area’s Indigenous people.
“In our community, the past couple of years, (we) have suffered some tragedies,” Samuel Iron Cloud, a Wyoming Indian High School graduate and one of the organizers of the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day walk, said event during this year’s event. “But we do not let that define who our communities are. The people in our communities are good people. We stand together and fight against bigotry, against white supremacy.”
The events took place in a diverse community with a rich Native American heritage that isn’t unfamiliar with these discussions about race relations.
In September, 58-year-old Anderson Antelope was shot and killed outside of the Riverton Walmart after authorities said he stabbed the officer and ignored orders to drop his knife, endangering bystanders.
While an investigation determined the officer acted lawfully, the Fremont County Coroner had said he intended to hold a public inquest to provide further transparency and closure to the public and Antelope’s family. But, citing an uncooperative county attorney and Riverton Police Department, he essentially canceled the inquest, angering many residents who were clamoring for more details.
In December, Riverton School District Administrators said they punished two students after images surfaced of them entering the school wearing white robes and hoods. That incident drew national attention and condemnation.
Still, some in the city hope the conversations spurred by the recent events can maintain momentum and lead to substantive changes, something similar discussions from previous negative events don’t seem to have accomplished.
Ron Howard, who helped organize the talking circle and has orchestrated similar events in the past to promote understanding across races, said he thinks the perception of Indigenous people in the city has hardly improved over the years.
“I don’t think we’ve moved very far,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve progressed very far with race relations.”
But Howard, who is a Northern Arapaho tribal member, said he is at least encouraged that the city’s leaders seem to be taking these concerns seriously this time. He hopes they continue to be vocal about bridging divides.
A long history
Surrounded by the Wind River Reservation and sitting on the traditional homeland of the Eastern Shoshone, Riverton is much more diverse than most of Wyoming. According to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 80.5 percent of Riverton residents are white, with a little more than 11 percent American Indian or Alaska Native and about 12 percent Hispanic or Latino. Four percent of the population is two or more races.
For all of Wyoming, 92.6 percent of residents are white. Less than 3 percent are American Indian and a little more than 10 percent are Hispanic or Latino.
Riverton residents are also not strangers to hearing concerns from Indigenous residents and neighbors who feel they aren’t welcomed by all in Riverton.
When the approximately 200 community members and students converged in Riverton for Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day walk, they were participating in an observance walk first organized at Wyoming Indian High School in 2003 as a response to what was then called the World Church of the Creator announcing in 2002 its intentions to relocate its headquarters to Riverton. The group — which is now known as the Creativity Movement — and its members follow violent neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideals, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A 2015 shooting of two Native Americans at the Center of Hope detox center in the city by a white man prompted more conversations about the racial tensions in Riverton.
To Howard, shooting was a symptom of misconceptions and misunderstandings about Indigenous culture that persist today. In addition, questions over whether Riverton sits on tribal land helped breed more mistrust, fear and negative perceptions of Native Americans in the area.
“You’d be surprised at how many people that live in this town don’t know the first thing about the reservation; they don’t know the first thing about what it is to be Arapaho or Shoshone,” he said. “That ignorance creates a lot of negativity.”
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The 2015 shooting inspired Howard to begin holding annual peace marches to encourage all residents regardless of race or background to encourage mutual understanding and respect.
Last Saturday’s talking and healing circle was hosted by the recently formed Riverton Peace Mission, which Howard said is an extension of those marches created to promote peace, harmony and understanding between the city’s Natives and non-Natives. Organizers had said that the event was especially needed to discuss the shooting of Antelope, results of the investigations and how to heal.
He said he was pleased Riverton Mayor Richard Gard, the city administrator and a police department official attended the talking circle. The two city leaders also attended Monday’s walk, with Gard giving a short speech.
After the shooting of Antelope, Riverton city officials and Northern Arapaho tribal leaders met to discuss ways the two can improve relationships and work toward common goals. One goal they’ve said they’d like to accomplish together is to bring an inpatient treatment center to the area.
Overall, Gard — while defending his police department and the officer who shot Antelope — said he believes Riverton isn’t as some have made it out to be but that he wants to do what he can to ensure it is a place for all to come and make their hometown.
“People talk like we’re not inclusive, but we are,” he said.
But he said he wants to continue talking with the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and start a dialogue with the Eastern Shoshone, to better understand how they can work together, and how the city can help, whether that’s with housing, transportation or employment. And he added that this month’s two events were educational and he plans to continue to participate in any discussions or events where issues between Native and non-Native residents occur.
“I’m here and I’m ready to help,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want racial tension.”
School district administrators in Riverton said they allowed students to miss class time to attend Monday’s walk to show that diversity and understanding are important to its students, despite what images of students wearing white robes and hoods may have indicated. About 20 Riverton High School students marched on Monday, according to school officials.
Although he said he is proud to be from Fremont County, Iron Cloud, one of the speakers at Monday’s march, wants Indigenous people to have “a seat at the table” to ensure all are treated equally.
“Martin Luther King Jr., he represented equality, he represented inclusiveness for everyone, and that’s what we want today,” he said during remarks at the walk. “Our people, we struggled here, and we continue to struggle, but when we’re united as one, we can do a lot of good things, not just for our people, but for our entire community here in Fremont County.”
At the Riverton Peace Mission’s talking circle, approximately 50 attendees gathered in a circle in a room at Central Wyoming College.
Those at the event volunteered to play roles — children, elders, mothers and women, fathers and warriors — that would be found in a traditional Indigenous culture. They were also asked to talk about how systems like governments and schools had — or hadn’t — failed them.
The purpose of the exercise, according to organizers, was to demonstrate by talking about the importance of those roles to Indigenous life and the disastrous effect colonization and boarding schools had on their culture. The exercise would hopefully show to those who are unaware that the effects of that historical trauma, family separation and economic disparity continue to be felt today — and are important to recognize.
“Once we understand, then we can get to the healing,” said Cherokee Brown, who led the exercise. “We must live in the truth.”
Although Gard said it’s “good to go back and understand” history, he’d like to move beyond what happened in the past and focus on solutions to present-day concerns or problems and not dwell on the past.
“Let’s stop talking about the bad things that happened and (instead) about how I could help you,” he said, adding that the two tribes also bear some responsibility in coming up with solutions.
One of the biggest challenges for those working to increase understanding across racial lines will be to get those who aren’t already aware of misconceptions — or don’t believe they exist — to participate in these discussions, Howard said. Part of the responsibility also sits with the area’s Indigenous people.
He said Natives Americans who live in and around Riverton need to make an effort to involve themselves in community affairs — despite concerns they may have about not being welcomed — to show that they want to be engaged and contribute to the city’s successes.
Though recognition of history and raising awareness through walks and other events is needed, said Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Fort Washakie, who is also a Northern Arapaho citizen, moving past conversations about race relations to substantive changes will require involvement of tribal and city leaders. She also gave remarks at the walk.
“It’s beyond that (conversations) where we have to improve,” she said. “There’s got to be real action at the elected officials and administrative levels to really sit down and have a crucial conversation about where do we go from here.”
In the future, Howard said the Riverton Peace Mission plans to continue to hold talking circles similar to the recent one. Hopefully, he said, those who attend and already understand the issues will start to bring a friend or family member who might be ignorant of the challenges Native Americans face or who don’t believe history is relevant to fostering a welcoming atmosphere. Then, the focus can turn to coming up with recommendations.
“The next time we have a talking circle, try and bring that person with you,” Howard said. “If everybody does that, our size will double. … If one person can bring a doubter or a hater, whether they talk or not, at least they can come and listen.
“For the most part, when we do a peace march, we’re basically preaching to the choir. I’m hoping that our efforts will reach people that don’t care or have animosity toward Natives. Hopefully we can educate those people and get them on board.”
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